“I want a sandwich!” “I want more juice!” “Juice!” “Give me that!”
Children never seem to ask properly for the things they want. I was making a sandwich for my daughter’s lunch today when she came into the kitchen and demanded it. And suddenly I didn’t want to give it to her anymore. Like most people, I don’t like being ordered to do things. I don’t like being yelled at. I appreciate being treated with consideration.
I also want my daughter to understand that she cannot tyrannize over everyone, demanding that others kowtow to her will. I want her to be polite.
But somehow, my kids never seem to ask properly the first time. Never. They always have to do it wrong first and be reminded. Surely, we adults think, it’s not so hard to say, “please may I have a sandwich.” or “Please can you get me a drink of juice.” And yet somehow the kids never try that first, after whining, yelling and demanding. It’s always an afterthought; something they have to be reminded to do.
We adults think that we always ask politely first, and that it’s not so hard. That kids could do it if they just tried. As I imagine most parents do, I frequently apostrophise my children on this topic. “Why can’t you just ask nicely to start with?”
DO we ask nicely?
It occurred to me today, though that maybe we adults don’t always ask nicely the first time. Certainly there are muscle-memory habits of saying please and thank you for things. We generally do ask “please pass me the salt” at the table, because we have learned from long experience that it is the easiest way to get the salt.
But in the things that really matter and that are not so socially scripted, I think we are far less courteous about how we ask for things than we think we are.
Courtesy is Hard
My children don’t say please the first time, because politeness—even the most basic forms of politeness like saying please and thank you—requires thinking first of another person’s wants, feelings, and desires, rather than our own.
Children are so immediate in their perception of the world that they find this nearly impossible. My daughter sees a sandwich and she wants it. So she says so. She comes across as rude and unpleasant simply because she’s self-absorbed, as all children her age are. And as most adults are. She doesn’t think first about how her way of expressing herself will make me feel.
But who of us really do? I try not to berate my kids in demeaning ways at least, but I often yell at them in a demanding tone to get what I could probably get more effectively by asking nicely. And in my relations with other adults, I am often so focused on what I want or need that I don’t notice that I’m hurting others and simultaneously sabotaging my own chances of getting what I want.
Sometimes hurting other people’s feelings is unavoidable, but we should always at least try to figure out where they’re coming from before trying to change their behavior.
To be clear, I will still make my children ask nicely for the things they want. I will still try to help them develop true courtesy, and in the meantime at least learn the social scripts that mimic it.
But hopefully I’ll be a little more patient with them in the meantime, and I hope their innocent rudeness will remind me to work a little harder on my own practice of courtesy.